In the months leading up to the November 2020 presidential election, the name Stacey Abrams was on everybody’s lips. Whenever a pundit or reporter attempted to predict what Georgians would ultimately have to say at the polls—and where that could leave the United States for the next four years (and beyond)—Abrams, often seen in the split-screen video framing we’re all so used to now, would address the concerns of the interviewer reasonably and thoroughly. Yes, she believed Georgia could vote for a Democratic candidate in 2020. No, she wasn’t running for anything at the moment. And finally, always: Register to vote now.
Some criticized Abrams for what they viewed as naivete about her state’s chances to flip from red to blue in the midst of political and social unrest. Who sees progress during a pandemic? Others called her a visionary or a hero based on what they’d read in headlines and Twitter threads. Abrams doesn’t refer to herself as anything other than determined. Visionary and hero are complimentary identifiers but encourage the kind of magical thinking that leads to an abdication of individual civil responsibilities, an outsourcing of collective will into the hands or minds of one or a few people. Passive civic engagement isn’t what Abrams has set out to inspire. “This isn’t magic,” she tells me during a video chat in early January. “This is math. It is maneuvering, but it is also a mental reset of who we are and what we’re capable of.”
Capable could be a dreary description of a person, but for Abrams—a self-described introvert—capability lit a path for potential futures. On the opposite side of that coin, highly competent Black women are always at risk of having their brilliance overused and undervalued. I wonder how Abrams has kept this from happening to her. “I’m aware of my limits,” she says. She admits that she may be guilty of pushing herself beyond those limits at times but doesn’t allow herself to break down: “I give myself permission to step back.”
At least some of the time, stepping back looks like writing. Abrams has written eight romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery. Her first thriller, While Justice Sleeps, about a young SCOTUS clerk who finds herself in the middle of a controversial case, will be published under Abrams’s own name on May 11. “Writing is cathartic, but it’s also demonstrative,” she explains. “It is how I can tell about other parts of me and get to explore things and ideas that I’m interested in without having to create another life and find another 30 hours in a day.” She adds, “It’s also how I can continue to connect.” Abrams is part of a robust network of writers in the romance community, including three who joined together to support her in her day job, soliciting approximately $400,000 for Georgia Democrats through their Romancing the Runoff fundraiser. Though Abrams has used a pseudonym for many of her books, she’s hugely proud of her work in the oft-belittled romance genre. “I am honored to be in the company of women—and some good men—who are discounted because of who they are, because of what they do, and because of their audacity of imagination.”
It would have been easy for Abrams to simply retreat into her writing in the aftermath of her 2018 gubernatorial loss. Instead, she went right back to serving the communities she’d wanted to serve as Georgia’s governor. “When you’re trying to build for a future, if you’re only building for your future, you are destined to fail.” She pauses and adds, “Unless you happen to be a billionaire or you come from a certain political class I have never actually occupied.”
Being the daughter of working-class, sometimes working-poor, pastors prepared Abrams for a life of service, ingrained in her a sense of duty, and made her understand this fundamental thing about humans: We have to work together because we need one another. Nothing magic about that. Just math. “My success is tied at the most base level with the success of my people, and my people are the South,” she says. “My people are Americans. My people are people of color. My success can only ever be real if I’m doing it for the success of others.”
Success arrived on November 12. On that Thursday, the Associated Press finally called Georgia, declaring that the people had elected Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, to the highest offices in the country. My Twitter timeline flooded with exaltations and questions. Tweet after tweet mentioned Stacey Abrams, thanking her, rooting for her. Some simply wrote out the letters of her name. Anyone who had ever met her posted a photo of the two together. There were memes and reminders that she wasn’t the only one to have a hand in the achievement: shout-outs for the work of activists like LaTosha Brown, cofounder of Black Voters Matter, or members of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, among others. One user asked Abrams what she wanted for her birthday (she would turn 47 on December 9), and within minutes, numerous others offered to pitch in on whatever her heart desired. What does she want?
“I want to be defending voting rights,” Abrams tells me. (If it’s at all surprising that the luminary doesn’t name an expensive car or a vacation, well, you haven’t been listening.) “I want us to effectively leverage the census and redistricting, and I want us to serve the disproportionately harmed communities. I want us to rebuild the public infrastructure of the South, using COVID not as an excuse for what was broken but as a template for what we need to do right.”
While the Twitterverse celebrated, Abrams encouraged those reading, watching, and listening to feel the surge of bliss that follows victory, but then to remember when it is time to get back to work and push further forward. For Abrams, that meant continuing to do what she’d been doing for months: making sure Georgians could and would exercise their right to choose their representatives, this time in the runoff election on January 5. She popped up as a panelist on The View and NBA on TNT. As I settled in for the digital quarantine party Verzuz—this episode a showdown between Jeezy and Gucci Mane—Abrams appeared again, encouraging voters to register and wishing both rappers good luck even if, no, she couldn’t wipe anyone’s record clean. She knew where the voters were, and she met them there. She stayed on message. It was never rocket science. Somebody just had to do it. Abrams showed up.
Ten years ago, Lauren Groh-Wargo was living and working in Columbus, Ohio, helping leaders build political structures in their states. A wealthy donor mentioned Abrams as an impressive voice, and Groh-Wargo made “the only cold-call consulting pitch of my life.” Since then, she’s been by Abrams’s side in her most ambitious forays into the wilds of political policy and representation, acting first as a consultant and then cofounding the voting-rights organization Fair Fight in 2018. When you see Abrams building something new, Groh-Wargo is behind the scenes pulling strings, taking notes, and affirming her faith in not only Abrams but also the progress being made. “She just doesn’t do politics from a position of fear, and way too many Democratic consultants, candidates, operatives function from a position of fear,” Groh-Wargo says, offering perhaps part of the secret to Abrams’s success. “It’s been so fulfilling,” she says wistfully, then adds, “It’s also been incredibly hard, with a ton of personal sacrifice.”
When Rev. Raphael Warnock was announced as the projected winner of his seat for the Senate, Abrams went to Groh-Wargo’s house. “When we won the runoff and Stacey came over to say ‘hey,’ my wife [said], ‘I’m not going to say it’s been easy, but at this moment it feels worth it,’” says Groh-Wargo. “And I’m like, ‘That’s the quote.’ Put it on my grave. It has not been easy, but it certainly does seem worth it now.”
Abrams doesn’t expect anything worthwhile to be easy. She doesn’t expect perfection. All she asks, and what she gives unceremoniously, is focus. And when those who would follow her lead focus, the things they assumed could never happen seem to keep...happening. On the morning of January 6, it became clear that formerly deep-red Georgia would be sending not only its first Black senator to Washington but also its first Jewish senator in Jon Ossoff. Two Democratic victories meant that Vice President Kamala Harris would hold the power of the tiebreaking vote.
But that same day, a white rage boiled just down the road from the Capitol. By afternoon, a mob breached the Senate chamber. When I ask Abrams how it made her feel to watch this happen, she is both clear-eyed and resolute in her response: “I’m certainly always dismayed by the level of treachery that we saw on [January 6], but I wouldn’t say that that is new.” Abrams isn’t alone in her feeling that in times like these, disgust and disappointment are on the menu, but it’s hard for Black folks especially to swallow surprise. “When I see the surprise, the aghast reaction, I think what people are reacting to is the immediacy of their interaction with this, but they forget about the years of conditioned exposure that so many more of us have lived with.
“I grew up in the state of Mississippi, where the Confederate battle flag was the state flag,” she continues. “I moved to Georgia, where the Confederate battle flag was incorporated into the state flag, where you could not enter a bank or the state capitol without this waving notion of what you should expect inside. I don’t have the capacity for surprise at this.”
I ask her what it feels like when she wins, and she’s silent. I ask if she ever feels like she’s won. She answers quickly: “No.”
That’s hard to believe, considering the progress she’s seen in just the last few months. Truthfully, she does think of those moments—Georgia turning blue, the Senate turning to the Democrats—as victories. It’s just that the idea of an ultimate and everlasting win doesn’t fit into the context of her work or her faith. “Because there’s nothing permanent about the change that we’re making until people believe it’s a change they should defend and maintain. And so every election, every fight, you’ve got to remind people that they have the capacity to win, and you have to do it anew.”
Abrams isn’t in it to remind you of the power she wields as much as to activate your understanding for how much power you wield. And how that power can be used toward a collective good. Most people, she believes, don’t realize how much they can do because they don’t already know how to do everything they want. In addition to that, sometimes they’re actively being misled about their options. “One of the most successful gaslighting operations in American history has been the disinformation [campaign] about our power, and because so many pieces of our society have been weaponized against us, we’ve also been conditioned to believe that weaponization is innate, that what they are doing is the right thing, and everything we’re asking for is a departure.”
Extinguishing the gaslight is what organizations like Fair Fight, Fair Count, and the Southern Economic Advancement Project are working to do. There’s a long line of leaders from coast to coast who believe they can do the same in their own reliably red states. Groh-Wargo shakes her head a bit and smiles. “Everybody’s like, ‘We want Stacey to fix our state. Lauren, can you come fix our state?’ And I’m like, ‘Guys, it’s just been 10 years of really hard work.’ There’s not a magic bullet. You’ve got to see the full playing field. You got to fix the party. And it’s just hard. It’s just hard.”
Hard but not impossible, says Abrams. Despite my digging, she can’t or won’t tell me about any plans to run for office again (though Republican strategists in the Peach State are so fearful of her, they’ve already set up an opposition research group called Stop Stacey), but she will continue to make sure more people have the option to do so, elevating the policies that lead toward equality for all. When pressed for specifics, she asserts that COVID-19 relief should be the top priority for now, and then she wants to see democracy reform at the federal level, “because an eligible voter’s geography shouldn’t determine the quality of their policy.” She wants voters’ rights expanded, statehood for the District of Columbia, and self-determination for Puerto Rico. The census, she says, was perverted by the Trump administration and will determine what happens to $1.5 trillion in funding. There’s so much to do, it’s hard to imagine it can all get done, but Abrams, ever clear, sees a way forward.
She has more to add about why she will continue to do this work right where she is instead of in D.C. or anywhere else. “If you can do it [in Georgia], you can prove that it is possible in enclaves that have given up. If you can do this stuff in the Deep South”—she looks directly into the camera—“if you can elect a Black Southern preacher and a Jewish son of an immigrant to the U.S. Senate while Donald Trump sits in the White House, then, by God, everything else is possible.”
This article originally appears in the April 2021 issue of Marie Claire.
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Ashley is a writer, host, and educator who lives in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, will be published by Flatiron Books on June 1, 2021.
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